NAS Report on GMOs Gives Spin New Life and Pulls Too Many Punches

By Chuck Benbrook

As I worked through Tuesday’s report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experience and Prospects,” I was at times pleasantly surprised by what I read and what the Committee recommends. But I was more often disappointed that the Committee passed up opportunities to drive home how serious many GE-crop triggered problems have become.

To its credit, the report does a good job describing the problems and challenges that have arisen over the last 20 years in the wake of widespread adoption of GE crops. These include the emergence and spread of resistant weeds and insects, inadequate pre-approval safety testing, the U.S. government’s disjointed regulatory framework, loss of trust and confidence in the quality of U.S. food and rigor of U.S. regulation, rising costs on the farm for GE seed and associated pesticides, and the public health and environmental consequences of the intensification of herbicide use.

But it fails to inform the reader that essentially all these problems are bound to get worse, and in some cases quickly, under current policy and market dynamics. The report offers dozens of constructive recommendations, many of which have appeared in NAS reports on agricultural biotechnology dating back to 2000. But very few of the recommendations in past NAS reports have been acted upon, and there is no reason to expect this trend to change.

I agree with the Committee that with advances in the techniques of genetic engineering, coupled with implementation of all the report’s recommendations, many of today’s problems and gaps in knowledge would become more manageable and less consequential. But the majority of the recommendations stand little chance of ever happening. Too bad the Committee did not explain more clearly what is likely to transpire in the absence of the sort of major changes called for in the report’s several dozen recommendations.

The lack of even a cursory policy-change reality check is a major shortcoming in the report, given that major changes in the policy arena have been called for before, but never come to fruition. Despite trying for nearly a year and overwhelming public support, the Congress cannot even agree on a way to label food containing GE ingredients.

Today’s GE technology, and the business model it has given rise to, remain highly profitable for the six major players in the global GE seed-pesticide industry. Their response to the spread of weeds resistant to glyphosate, the main herbicide used in conjunction with GE crops, is to engineer crops resistant to additional herbicides, in the hope farmers can spray their way off of a herbicide treadmill created in the first place by excessive reliance on herbicides.

A Fresh Start for the NAS on GE Crops?

The actual content of the report, beyond the summary, deviates considerably from past NAS reports on the topic. It gives credence to many issues and problems largely dismissed or ignored in past NAS GE-related reports. It dispassionately explains why GE technology has, in general, not increased yields, and why GE crops are not “game changers” in the pursuit of global food security. And on some issues like trust in science and avoiding introduction of novel allergens in the food supply, the report is surprisingly forceful and its recommendations are right on target. Too bad they likely won’t happen.

The report consistently downplays the severity of the issues and the costs of dealing with the collateral damage left in the wake of market disruptions and public controversy over GE technology. I think the Committee owes the public a more sober appraisal.

Agricultural applications of genetic engineering have become a complex, convoluted area of science, technology, policy and market dynamics. It is challenging to keep abreast of important developments, even for people in the trenches for 20+ years. Plus, there is far too much out-of-control spin from both sides, “noise” that obscures what we actually do know, and could do to reduce risks and enhance benefits.

The committee itself gives into the spin when it says that labeling is a political issue, not a scientific one. It is obviously both.

Labels on GE sweet corn, for example, will give both mothers and pediatricians a reason to add Bt proteins to the list of possible causes when treating a child with a new food allergy. Acknowledging the presence of GE ingredients on a food label does not tarnish the reputation of food, and indeed it can serve to protect it, if and as appropriate sensitivity tests and post-market surveillance show no connection to new allergy cases.

Labeling GE food is no panacea, but it will increase the odds that problems will be detected sooner rather than later. The decision to not label GE foods has the effect of keeping the entire medical community on the sidelines, neither aware of possible GE food-allergen problems, nor capable of doing anything about them. Plus, labeling is essential to turning around public discourse, worldwide, on GE crops, and sustaining access for U.S. food companies to high-value, overseas markets.

Dealing with Roundup

The NAS Committee also dropped the ball when it comes to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup and other herbicides. Glyphosate is the most heavily applied pesticide in history, by far, and is in enormous regulatory trouble worldwide. Regulators and the biotech industry will soon be forced by events to start imposing meaningful use and risk-reduction measures, while scientists work overtime to fill gaps in knowledge (assuming governments start to fund independent research).

Hopefully, the U.S. and EU will soon agree to three steps — banning all pre-harvest uses of glyphosate on small grains, edible beans, and other human food crops (all non-GE); second, reducing the ridiculously high tolerances on GE crops that Monsanto and other companies were able to get onto the books over the last decade in the U.S., and internationally via Codex; and three, banning use of high-risk surfactants and other so-called “inert” ingredients in formulated, ready-to-use herbicide products.

Just these three common-sense strategies could considerably reduce human dietary exposures, perhaps by 50% or more, and at very little cost.

Looking Ahead

I agree with the NAS that gene editing technology poses a smaller set of risk concerns than transgenics. However, it remains to be seen what other impacts CRIPSR et al will have on other aspects of gene regulation, and plant-environment interactions.

If the government does not get serious about answering legitimate questions about gene editing technology, the public backlash against “another untested, unproven GE technology” will spoil the new-technology gene pool. This will serve no ones interest, and could delay or derail valuable agricultural and medical applications of gene editing technology.

If the U.S. had put a more robust, science-driven and transparent regulatory system in place 20 years ago as we started down the GE crop path, today’s new technology might face a very different, and far smoother path to the marketplace.

But that path was not taken. Until the GE crop testing and regulatory shortcomings documented in this 2016 NAS Committee are rectified, today’s problems will almost certainly worsen and current controversies will morph and spread, and become more costly in a diversity of ways.

I am among a small number of people who fear GE-technology related costs already exceed the technology’s benefits. But I also believe that thoughtful action can reduce the costs, and increase the value of GE applications that make it through the process. Such a process, however, remains largely hidden and this new NAS report offers little help in forging a way forward.

Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook directed the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture from 1984 to 1990 and is well known for his work on GMO and glyphosate issues. He is an agricultural economist and former research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. He currently serves on the USDA’s AC 21 Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Benbrook holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University (1971), as well as an M.A. (1979) and a PhD (1980) in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.